Bo Bennett is an author and host of the American Humanist Association’s podcast The Humanist Hour. His latest project is called “Secular Backstage,” an auction website where people can bid on opportunities to spend one-on-one time with secular leaders and other high-profile humanists and atheists.
TheHumanist.com: Tell us a little about how Secular Backstage works and what inspired you to start it.
Bo Bennett: Imagine you’re attending a secular conference where your favorite secular leader will be presenting. You see on Secular Backstage that he or she has an auction created where you can bid to have lunch with them for one of the days while at the conference. You make a bid for the opportunity, and you might compete against others or you might not. If you win the bid, you win the opportunity to have lunch with the secular leader and pick their secular brain (metaphorically speaking). This is just one example. Auctions don’t have to be associated with conferences; they can also be for a dinner, drinks, coffee, eighteen holes of golf, etc., and some can be for small groups where the top four or five winning bids have a private dinner with the secular leader auctioning his or her time.
As for my inspiration for starting Secular Backstage, a few years ago, when writing my book, The Concept, I wanted to verify some information with someone who knew more about biblical scholarship than me. I noticed that one of the top secular biblical scholars was presenting at a nearby university, so I contacted him and offered $1,000 to have lunch with him and discuss some of these ideas in my book. He agreed. This was perhaps the best $1,000 I have ever spent. Not only was his feedback invaluable to my book, but it was a real honor for me having the opportunity to chat with him on a personal level over a delicious lunch. It was at that time I first thought of Secular Backstage.
Recently, my wife and I saw the guys from “Stuff You Should Know” perform a live podcast in Boston. At the end of the show, an audience member invited the hosts out for a beer. The 300+ audience members applauded, as in “Count us in, too.” The hosts graciously had to decline. My guess was for logistical reasons rather than not wanting to connect personally with their fans. The very next day I came across an article describing how a couple paid $100,000 to spend an afternoon with the football player Tim Tebow. It was at this point that I just had to create Secular Backstage.
TheHumanist.com: People who are active in the humanist movement and other secular organizations certainly aren’t in it for the money, and yet they do need to make a living. Have you received positive responses from people who’ve invited to sell their time?
Bennett: So far the responses have been very positive, yet there are secular leaders who have expressed that they are uncomfortable with the idea of charging fans for their time. I’m not surprised by this given that new ideas are generally embraced cautiously until there is sufficient social proof for the idea. To illustrate, I have been podcasting since about 2005. Since that time, the primary financial model has changed several times. It began with putting most content behind a paywall (as in a membership site) where listeners had to join the site, for a cost, to access the content. Then the norm became hawking products as an affiliate (e.g., Audible, The Great Courses, etc.) hoping that your listeners will use your special code to purchase the “sponsor’s” service or product. What I call digital panhandling has recently become the norm, which is basically asking people to support your work by donating money. Like regular panhandling, it may be enough to “get by,” but in my opinion, secular leaders deserve more than that. They at least deserve the opportunity to do what they love full-time without needing to hold on to their “day job” just to make ends meet. Secular Backstage may not be the solution to making a living in the secular movement, but it can be a large part of it.
TheHumanist.com: What about from potential buyers? Do people understand that you’re not raising money for charity but for individuals?
Bennett: Each secular leader can choose to do what they wish with the money they raise from their auction. When the money is for charity, the auction page on Secular Backstage makes it very clear where the money goes. The absence of such charity information indicates the auction is not for charity. Some of the secular leaders who have used this service so far have chosen to indicate what the money will be used for. For example, one author mentioned that the money raised would be going to the promotion of his new book. When I financially support people in the secular movement, I want my money to be used for whatever helps them to continue doing what they are doing, whether that be paying taxes or taking their family on a well-needed vacation.
TheHumanist.com: You offer suggestions on the Secular Backstage website for activities bidders might propose to secular leaders whose time they purchase, including dinner, drinks, a walk, or a “private reception.” Do you worry that some bidders may mistake the nature of the interaction and see it as a date situation?
Bennett: I was thinking of creating a disclaimer for the homepage to make that part perfectly clear. It is generally not a good idea to assume common sense is common.
TheHumanist.com: Who would you most like to buy personal time with, and what would you choose to do with him or her?
Bennett: As the host of the Humanist Hour, I have the wonderful privilege of conversing with some amazing people—and not small talk, but some deep and intellectually stimulating conversations. Secular Backstage is a way for people to have a taste of this same privilege I enjoy without having to host a weekly show. Ricky Gervais would be top on my list to have dinner with. Everyone in my family is a big fan of Gervais, so I would bid on behalf of myself and my family. That would be one amazing dinner.